One could tell how much this victory meant to Gareth Southgate by the way in which he embraced his assistant Steve Holland at full time. England mounted a recovery to come from behind and become the first team to defeat the No.1-ranked country in two years.
A Marcus Rashford penalty and a deflected goal by Mason Mount ensured that England overcame Belgium’s first half opener via Romelu Lukaku’s spot-kick. Against such illustrious opponents, Southgate’s selection of players and system came out on top.
England’s system passes noticeable hurdle
Southgate and his opposite number, Roberto Martinez, both opted for a 3-4-3 formation. This signified what not appears a permanent reversion back to the system that saw England to the semi finals of the 2018 World Cup. Previously Southgate had dappled with a 4-3-3 to accommodate more attacking options but his U-turn seems to be final and the more pragmatic choice has prevailed.
It was Belgium who dominated long stretches of the match, especially in the first period. The emphasis from Martinez’s side was on possession; Kevin De Bruyne was roaming in midfield and constantly on the point of a game-changing piece of skill. The visitors were without the injured Eden Hazard, who along with De Bruyne elevates their country to the current No.1 ranking.
Yet, in many ways, England’s deployment of the system was more effective. Similarly to against Wales last Thursday it took Southgate’s side a while to grow into the game but soon enough. The switches of play from Trent Alexander-Arnold to fellow wing-back Kieran Trippier were well executed, with one leading to Mount’s winning goal. The 3-4-3 does cover-up some of England’s defensive weaknesses but more faith must be placed in getting the wing-backs further forward is the system is to truly flourish.
Regulars won’t relinquish their spots easily
This was a much more experienced England side than that which played against Wales. Southgate showed that he is not going to give into clamour and select a populist XI, even if Jack Grealish put in a Man of the Match display in the previous game. Southgate is loyal and will try to stick with the players who have been a part of his squads for the past few years.
Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford both came back into the starting XI and performed well albeit not spectacularly. The Manchester United captain defended solidly when one-on-one with his former team-mate Lukaku. Whilst the Everton goalkeeper wasn’t given a great deal to contend with he did allow a Yannick Carrasco strike travel straight through him, although it was ruled our for offside.
Trippier, another of Southgate’s regulars, played well as left wing-back and assisted Mount’s goal with a cushioned header into the Chelsea attacker’s path. Likewise, Rashford returned, to a front-line that lacked Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, who came on as a second half substitute, and scored a penalty after Jordan Henderson was hauled down from a corner.
Rashford caps off great weekend
It was Rashford’s penalty that settled England’s nerves towards the end of the first half. It wasn’t his best all-round display but the goal did come on the weekend that he was awarded an MBE for his work off the pitch. The United forward is having his say both with and without the ball at the moment, which is commendable for a 22-year-old.
Some of his movement against the experienced backline of Belgium was impressive, he switched sides to great effect in the attacking line and he should have scored a second with a late run and strike off-target. It was also interesting to assess the chemistry that exists between him and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is fast becoming Kane’s deputy. There were a few interchanges to suggest a promising relationship in the offing.
Belgium slowed after early goal
When Lukaku dispatched a penalty in 16th minute, after Eric Dier slid in on the Belgian forward, it seemed that the visitors had England just where they wanted them. Lukaku was showing his fine hold-up play and first touch whilst De Bruyne had an impact from deeper with Leicester City’s Timothy Castagne and Thomas Meunier advancing well on either flank to offer support. Carrasco’s ruled-out goal would have made it 2-0 before England had really settled.
But then Martinez’s team slowed and allowed England to become more assertive in their play. Declan Rice started to dominate the midfield rather than Axel Witsel, Kyle Walker was pre-emptitive at the back and England’s back-three pushed further forward, allowing the wing-backs to have a greater impact further up-field. Belgium’s quality is clear and this was only their fourth defeat in 47 matches, but they couldn’t match their dominant first half in the second allowing England to mount a recovery.